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Gold Rushing the Otago Central Rail Trail

So, after one night of decompression in Te Anau following our Milford hike, and before our bike journey along the Otago Central Rail Trail, we head back inland, this time passing by Queenstown to spend a couple nights in Wanaka. Yet another picturesque little city set on a lake and surrounded by hills and hikes and viewpoints, we absolutely loved this place. Many people choose to work abroad in New Zealand, which is something we have certainly considered, and if we did Wanaka would be right at the top of the list of places to base ourselves. A big part of that may have been because of our accommodation, an amazing 2-bdr apartment (Criffel Peak View) on a hill walking distance to the town centre. Great views over the town and surrounding hills, friendly and helpful owners, two terraces, a BBQ, modern kitchen, TV, free laundry, free wifi, couches, a beanbag chair, and even a garage to park our rental car in, this place was amazing, probably the best place we’ve stayed in NZ so far. Laynni took advantage of the facilities to treat us to a great steak/potatoes/Caesar salad/mushrooms/garlic bread meal. Sure, it couldn’t compare to a messy slab of ribs on the heels of four days of dehydrated pasta-like substances, but really, what does?  Other than A&W, of course.

Criffel BBQ
Enjoying a typical sunny NZ day

As for the town, well, everyone has their own personal ideal size when it comes to cities, with regard to traffic, amenities, infrastructure and transportation, and dare I say that Wanaka was perfect in my opinion. Although it is maybe easier to stay in Queenstown on a budget, Wanaka is a bit smaller with a population of roughly 6,500 and has the same stunning setting and bevy of options for food and activities. On the flipside, it is bigger with more amenities than Arrowtown and its cute one-street vibe and decent hiking options. Wanaka also has a huge variety of hikes of all lengths and difficulties, enough to keep a person busy for months, all plenty capable of filling up the memory on your phone with spectacular photos. There are also a number of places to rent bikes, kayaks, take boat tours, enjoy a pint overlooking the lake, or get an unhealthily enormous ice cream cone for just $3 (no matter how much evidence exists that one scoop will be enough, it seems I can absolutely never resist going for two, just in case…) And to top it all off, our visit just happened to coincide with the annual A & P extravaganza (Agriculture and Puppies? Plumbers? Plantains? Penile implants? I’m now being told the answer is actually “pastoral”…, the word we’re looking for is ”pastoral”), advertising not just the usual vast array of cabbage displays and flour-mixing demonstrations, but also a large midway of rides, children getting their faces painted as various felines and rodents, dogs running obstacle courses looking far more eager than the activity warrants and, of course, the live action thrills of semi-professional sheep shearing! Not that we actually went, but it looked pretty wild from outside the fence.

Lake Wanaka

Other Wanaktivities (you like that?):

Spent a couple hours stretching our hiking legs again on the steep but spectacular Diamond Lake trail, the impressive Roy’s Peak hike, plus a couple nice walks along the lakefront.

Went to see the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at the locally famous boutique theatre. The concession/café sold a variety of meals, snacks, desserts and even alcohol, the movie was stopped in the middle for an intermission, with the manager personally checking that everyone was comfortably back in their seats before restarting, and the theatre featured a mix of huge, comfortable seats, actual couches, easy chairs, and even a dentist’s chair, presumably as a joke, or maybe to accommodate those who prefer to be anesthetized when watching Judi Dench display sexual tension. Despite all these perks, however, and the movie’s fascinating backdrop of authentic India, there was still no getting past the fact it was mainly a bunch of old people making corny jokes, and shots of elephants.

I joined the Sunday afternoon crowd at the BMW New Zealand Open golf tournament in Arrowtown. As the biggest golf event in New Zealand it seemed just too convenient to pass up, although the perfect sunny afternoon, wonderfully manicured course and inspirational skill of the professional golfers made me miss playing as much as I ever have while travelling. Plus, while I stood watching behind the tee box, a South African golfer tossed me his used Titleist like I was the poor kid with leukemia living out my final wish. Nice gesture, as long as that number written on the ball wasn’t his hotel room.


The Otago Central Rail Trail

Then it was back to work, our next Monday morning project being a 4-day biking trip covering 150 kilometres across the Otago plains. The trail follows a former railway line past and through tiny towns still lingering over a century removed from their inception as 19th century gold rush boom towns. The route was strewn with historic information, antique remnants and storied locations, but the best part, from a biking perspective at least, was that as a former rail track it was mostly flat, with the steepest hill being a 1 in 50 grade. Of course, based on how slow and disgruntled even that incline made us after a couple hours, I can only assume that, say, a 3 in 50 grade would lead us to melodramatic bouts of weeping and ineffectual air kicks. Really nice cruising downhill, though.

From the start

The historic elements reminded us vaguely of Canada, actually, at least in the way everything was at most 150 years old and made of wood, so unlike the ancient sites of Europe, the Middle East or Africa, where it seems every second building is 3,000 years old, carved illegibly and surrounded by Chinese tour groups. Not that we were overly enamoured with the historical aspects, anyway, rarely even reading the informative plaques in the periodic “ganger’s sheds”, appreciating them only as shelter from the wind and good excuses to eat more chocolate. We also had a “Rail Trail Passport” which most people filled along the way using stamps provided at each designated historic point. Ours never actually left our bag, a fact which never failed to elicit a disapproving frown and pursed-lip “hmmmm” from our fellow rail trailers.

A ganger's shed

Despite its daunting length, this was certainly a long-distance biking trail for even the most inexperienced beginner, although the optional River Trail that most people started out on, though only minimally challenging in terms of off-road biking, was still more than elaborate enough to illustrate just how many people truly had no trail experience – stopping to chat in the middle of single lane, group gatherings at the bottom of the steepest hills to strategically snuff out any potential momentum, careening wildly off the path to crash into the bush, etc. Despite clearly lacking in both experience and confidence, however, Laynni actually acquitted herself rather well, considering she rides a bike roughly once a year, and only under duress, neither of which, however, explain her inexplicably intense fear of having me ride anywhere behind her, apparently suffering from an irrational fear that I will suddenly abandon all logic and safety and relish in spectacular, if damaging and painful, collisions with her back tire any time she slows down. She’s right, but at the time she had no way of knowing that…

We rented our bikes through a company that turned out to be both organized and professional, despite being rather questionably named Shebikehebikes, and, not surprisingly, Laynni opted for the “comfort bike”, a model custom-designed for the Rail Trail’s notable lack of rough terrain. High handlebars, fewer gears, narrower tires, a low cross-bar and, most importantly, a large, wide and comfortable padded seat. Taking no chances, she also rented the optional gel seat cover for added protection. I, of course, due to limited foresight and a far too influential ego, felt the need to stick with a traditional mountain bike, referred to in this context as a “sport bike”, having apparently grown very attached to jolted forearms, terrible posture and burning pain in close vicinity to my rectum. Not even an added gel seat cover for this guy, never mind that the last time I spent any extended time on a rock-hard, vaguely sadistic mountain bike seat was way back in September in Waskesiu. “I’ll be fine”, my smug grin and condescending chuckle told the world. 44 kilometres later I limped into the Shebikeshebikes office in Omakau having completely changed my stance on padded gel seats, and now offering up a more pained, sheepish look that instead told people “I’m an idiot, and the pain in my taint makes me want to lay down in some relatively clean straw and sob in agony”. Whether it was the look, or simply the $10 I forked over, is hard to say, but they fixed me up and, although it only helped to dull further pain (despite having taken enough precautions to make a nude sky diver proud, even Laynni was soon walking like a truck driver in the midst of a prune fast), it certainly made the next 110 kilometres a bit easier. I mean, other than the lingering ass pain, the bruised palms from jolting over rocks, the aching forearms, the stiff, burning thigh muscles, the constantly spasming neck. Other than that stuff, well, it was more or less a piece of cake.

The sun comes out!

Despite my unseemly whingeing, however, it really was mostly easy cruising, with lots of breaks at scenic points, bridges, tunnels, or in grim little ganger’s sheds when shelter from the elements was more of a priority. The scenery was tremendous and extremely varied – a fascinating mix of hills, gorges, rocks, cattle, Merino sheep (inexplicably skittish if we even stopped our bike on the road – those shearing sessions must be even more invasive and humiliating than my average haircut), views of distant mountains and close encounters with tiny rural villages famous for things like “cute” post offices, year-round curling and two (!) grocery stores. And even though it always seemed like we were going at least slightly up- or downhill, overall the trail really was impressively flat, not to mention featuring long dark tunnels through the really rough patches. I never really put much thought into it before, how trains really don’t deal well with hills, and how much hard labour, spirited pick-axing and festive dynamiting goes into landscaping these routes. Oh, and the deaths of a few thousand Chinamen here and there, of course, but aren’t their dreary little 19th century lives a small price to pay to provide top quality recreational pursuits for the motivated outdoorsman on the go?

Big tunnel

Unlike the dormitory huts we subjected ourselves to on the Milford Track, here we spent every night in a friendly, comfortable hotel, all of which were unique in their own way. A roaring fire with nice couches, but bathroom walls that don’t actually reach the ceiling. An entire hotel shared between us and just one other person, a bitter, formerly-retired, recently re-employed driveway-to-driveway farm clothing salesman cooking himself instant noodles and bemoaning the state of modern New Zealand. A delicious 3-course meal in a tasteful lounge, but needing to walk outside through the rain to get to the shared bathroom.

Luxury meets rusticity

Our time on the Rail Trail coincided with an unseasonable cold snap in Southern New Zealand, with nightly temperatures dropping as low as freezing some nights. Even the daily highs dropped off a cliff from 24 the day before we started to 12 the next. But we were thrilled to not get more than a light sprinkle of rain here and there. In the words of one old guy – “we didn’t get rain, just some wet dots that didn’t even connect”. His wife, however, argued “some of mine connected”. Once, after a beer/hot chocolate (stir it yourself!) break at the Wedderburn Tavern, we were just about to leave when it actually started hailing. So we waited ten minutes, it stopped, and we then had a great last hour downhill with the sun shining. So there. As for the cold, other than having to cover our ears (finally those buffs come in handy for more than cleaning our windshield and filling in small unused corners in our backpacks) and wear gloves, the cold wasn’t much of a downside for us, having already opted to ride in pants and long-sleeved shirts – surely at first the source of many a knowing chuckle among the unnecessarily lycra-clad crowd, especially when closer looks revealed the feminine hair elastic barely holding my pant leg out of the chain, but likely the cause of more envy later on when some of these overweight, underdressed Tour de France hopefuls were huddled next to the fireplace struggling desperately to rub the feeling back into all their pale, fleshy spots.

One of many tavern stops

Not that I mean to disparage our fellow Rail Trailers, for the most part a gregarious, older crowd, mostly 55+, almost all Kiwis (we’ve been repeatedly impressed at how much they love to travel within their own country), and unfailingly thrilled to have the chance to experience such an accessible yet challenging scenic ride so close to home. Some of them had to be upwards of 70 or so, which we found rather shocking because, despite the fact that this is clearly not the most challenging biking terrain around, it is still 150 kilometres over rough gravel and occasional hills, more than enough to cause several bits and parts of our admittedly aging bodies soreness for several days after (not to mention during). Of course, not everyone was what you might call ideal, personality-wise that is, such as the guy who lived in Christchurch years ago talking over the woman who has lived there her whole life (and still) whenever the subject came up, or the guy who simply refused to even entertain the possibly that a weather forecast might exist predicting a different wind direction than the one he read (coincidentally I’m sure, the wind looked very promising for him and his group, very promising indeed), or the Kiwi woman who was astounded to hear about the carful of tourists killed in a car accident due to their own stupid mistake because “these were intelligent people, Americans, I mean it’s not like they were Chinese, that I could understand.”

And how.

Big bridge

Many of the older men tended to be rather comical, just in general, constantly busting on ahead of their bemused spouses just to demonstrate just how vigorous and energetic they still are, easily capable of outdistancing any of us young ‘uns if only they weren’t being dragged back by their significant other, or group, or mere common sense. And on those occasions when dynamic displays of biking prowess weren’t possible (never you mind about that worrisome gasping, I’ll worry about my own impending coronary, got it, son?) they were always quick with the helpful knowledge, effortlessly tossing out such unsolicited nuggets as “that’s the Ida Valley!”, or “this is where the railway used to go!”

Final stretch

Finally, four days on, we reached the end, the rather anticlimactic little town of Middlemarch, where we caught a brief shuttle to Pukerangi to board the famous Taieri Gorge Railway (an actual railway after a former railway, the irony was not lost on us), where we spent the next hour and half to Dunedin incongruously enjoying amazing views of the gorge from the antique comfort of an old steam train eating cheap meat pies surrounded by portly tourists clad in many different types of clothing, suddenly none of which were lycra.

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